(Vintage)Ford's characters are waiters, small-time thieves, paper salesmen, people who work at Wal-Mart, alcoholics, salesladies. His style of writing is wandering and understated. He noodles about with the facts, coming back to them, then pushing them away.He is a stylistic worrier. He is saying, "I'm not so sure I've got the picture, and I am not so sure I will get it across to you. Here, let me try it again." This is not an affectation, and it isn't boring, nor necessarily repetitive. It is as if he is searching to get things exactly right, so you the reader will understand; indeed, so he --- Richard Ford --- will understand.But then, because of the nature of writing, of words, on the page, he is also telling us that he may never get it right, the truth may never get fixed as it should. Thus his last bit in this collection --- a memoir of his mother, Edna Akin --- shares with the other six this fretting: will I get it across to you? And if I do, will you even get it?He worries at the fact that she and her generation didn't think in psychological ways, didn't analyze their lives, didn't worry the past too much, seemed to live without regret --- "Lived a nice and comfortable life of waiting."
For the most part, these are thus sagas of people not too different from those of us who live without too much in the way of expectations, without tricks or even the need to "better" our lives; but, rather, just get along with it, to the best of our ability. His mother seems not to regret her lack of education, has no regrets of her marriage --- one could say a marriage that was happy, "more or less," to a man who sold starch for a living, had a territory in the central Southern states, the two of them "reasonably content."
They were well along in their marriage, no children, fifteen years, when Richard decided to appear on the scene. His father died a few years later. She saw other men, worked as a secretary, worked in an emergency room --- then developed cancer.
Ford worries, as all writers must, like those of us who push the words around, whether he can tell the story, get it across; worries that it might not be working, this writer stuff, just writing the words down to the best of his ability may not make it possible for us to understand:
Something, some essence of life, is not coming clear through these words. There are not words enough. There is not memory enough to give a life back and have it be right, exact.
He is trying to define Edna Akin, and himself, and their time together, what it meant to be mother and son, but finds himself not quite succeeding, not being sure if the failure is his, or the fact that it is the failing of writing, not making possible the impossible to make us see, understand, know; it may be never enough:
Indeed, she saw that what we'd made of things --- she and I --- was the natural result of prior events that were themselves natural. She was now, as before, not a psychologist. Not a quizzer. She played the cards she was dealt. By some strange understanding, we knew that this was life. This is what we would have. We were fatalists, mother and son. And we made the most of it.
What we have here is a pairing. He, the writer, is supposed to be the one who organizes, sees into things, understands, brings them in the clear for those of us outside.
And then there are those he is writing about, those who are not "quizzers," who are there just because they are there, doing the best with what they have. In other words, he is delivering parts of stories of those who don't necessarily have that much of a story. They are there, he must deal them out to us, but they are too much a part of the order of things to be held up to the light, to be worthy of the fictional role that he as writer has set up for them. And for us.
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There are seven stories in this volume, including the story/biography above. Three (the first three) --- "Communists," "Reunion," "Calling" --- are superb. In two, the narrator is a boy. In "Reunion" the narrator is acting like a boy --- purposely confronting Mack, a man he cuckolded years before. He (author, narrator) plays with this passivity, plays us with his passivity. It builds a tension, to confront the man in Grand Central Station, the man whose wife he once filched --- but their actions and reactions are so drawn out and passive as to turn comic: "Do you think there could be someplace else you could go now?" says Mack, whose face has turned "imploring" and "exhausted."
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Thus we have people acting out their lives who are not able to articulate why they do what they do. At those times when words come, they might well be the wrong ones. Thus Ford is trying to define the indefinable, which may well be why he is so successful at showing us those who are young, inexperienced, in love, or (in the extended "Womanizer") the days of a man who speaks little French who has fallen in love with a woman who speaks little English, the love traumatizing both their lives, destroying the peace of his wife, and this woman he comes to crave, and her four-year-old son.
All become inarticulate; all are unable, like his own mother, to analyze, (or better, to psychoanalyze) the why of their lives. All are filled with great moments, but these are moments that words cannot possibly do justice to. And when they do say something, it might well be regret at saying the wrong thing, talking about baseball, say: "He felt, just for an instant, bleak ... He simply wished he hadn't mentioned the Cubs. This was over-confident, he thought. It was the wrong thing to say. A mistake."
When his characters speak, the words come out wrong, and it often would be better not to have offered them at all. Words are deceptive, will get you in trouble. In the final part of his mother's tale, as she is dying, he offers her a chance to come live with him and his wife in Princeton. After refusing such succor for years, at last,
I saw in my mother's eyes, then, a light. A kind of light, anyway. Recognition. Relief. Concession. Willingness.
"Are you sure about that?" she said and looked at me. My mother's eyes were very brown, I remember.
"Yes, I'm sure," I said. "You're my mother. I love you."
"Well," she said and nodded. No tears. "I'll begin to think toward that, then. I'll make some plans about my furniture."
"Well, wait," I said. And this is a sentence I wish, above all sentences in my life, I had never said. Words I wish I'd never heard. "Don't make your plans yet," I said. "You might feel better by then. It might not be necessary to come to Princeton."
"Oh," my mother said. And whatever had suddenly put a light into her eyes suddenly went away then.
Ford's life and work are words. He shapes them every day, forms them into sentences, ideas, books. But they can trick you, can lead you astray, can turn around and poison you, and your life, and the lives of others. They seem so easy, come so easy --- but as they build, so they can, so easily, destroy.--- Rebecca Warren, PhD